The Bach Experience

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Luke 23:33-43

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Rev. Gaskell

The Chapel’s gothic nave, built to lift the spirit, welcomes you

The Chapel’s sixty year history, at the heart of Boston University, welcomes you

The Chapel’s regard for persons and personality, both in its Connick stained glass windows and in its current ministry, welcomes you

The Chapel’s familiar love of music, weekday and Sunday, welcomes you

The Chapel’s congregation of caring, loving souls, in this sanctuary, welcomes you in spirit.

Welcome today as we enhance our endowment.

We celebrate the endowment we already have.  It is a rich and treasure.  It is an endowment vocal not visible, audible not audited, psychic not physical, moral not material.  Listen for its echoes…listen…

All the good you can…

The two so long disjoined…

Heart of the city, service of the city…

Learning, virtue, piety…

Good friends all…

Hope of the world…

Are ye able, still the Master, whispers down eternity…

Common ground…

Content of character…

Congregation and community, you come too.

Earthly assembly and heavenly chorus, you come too.

Beauty opens the world to grace.  Beauty may prepare you for the gospel of faith, the faith of the gospel.  Beauty is a ‘praeparatio evangelica’, a preparation of the gospel.  Bach is a prelude to faith.

Faith, the leap of faith, requires preparation.  Our colleague Peter Berger has written about this preparation: “I can find in human reality certain intimations of (God’s) speech, signals, unclear though they are, of His presence…joy, expressed in (great music) which seeks eternity…the human propensity to order which appears to correlate with an order in the universe…the immensely suggestive experience of play and humor, the irrepressible human propensity to hope, the certainty of some moral judgments, and last, but not least, the experiences of beauty…”(Questions of Faith, 12).

Beauty prepares us for faith.  Bach is a prelude to the gospel.

When you stand before your grandchild, in the hour of birth, you might think about that.  When you look into your father’s eyes, as he lies critically ill, you might think about that. When you realize that you have a real friend, one real friend, you might think about that. When you look at your beautiful country, in a time of need, and wonder whether you should bestir yourself to write a check or make a phone call, you might think about that. When a sunset seizes you, when a poem teases you, when a sermon freezes you, you might think about that.  It takes a leap.  Faith takes a leap.

Something beautiful may have prepared our gospel writer.  Bach may prepare you today.  Bach may lift your soul beyond youthful grunge.  Bach may raise your soul out of religious hiding.  Bach may sear your soul with beauty, and call you out of forty years of spiritual sloth.  It would not be the first time.  Today we hear a song of thanksgiving, a grateful and beautiful anthem. “Bach’s cantatas, in fact, were conceived and should be regarded not as concert pieces at all, but as musical sermons; and they were incorporated as such in the regular Sunday church services”. (The Cambridge Companion to Bach, 86).  I wonder whether the beautiful holiness of this music will touch you?

Dr. Jarrett

Today we present Cantata 10: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’, Bach’s German setting of the Canticle of Mary as found in the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. Our program annotator Brett Kostrzewski reminds us both of the joyful prevalence of this text in most all Christian liturgies, but also the familiarity of the Leipzig congregation with this most joyful and famous canticle.

Let’s first consider the libretto for our cantata. Typically, we’d expect to find a biblical exhortation – perhaps a verse or two from a Psalm – followed by a series of recitatives and arias, each of which advances a different rhetorical argument or perspective of the scriptural subject of the day. The recits tend to pack in the most theology with their syllabic declamation, leaving the arias to convey a more personal response to the scriptural subject. Cantata 10 draws its libretto entirely from the Canticle of Mary, the first two verses quoted exactly, with the interior movements paraphrasing the remainder of the text. Only once does our anonymous librettist depart from the Lukan text when, in the final recitative, the tenor expounds on the broader theological implications of the word made flesh with themes that remind us of the first chapter of John. Bach adds the string orchestra at this moment, as if to underscore the importance of this final teaching opportunity.

There are three arias that comprise the corpus of the cantata. The first proceeds directly out of the opening movement without recitative, and immediately and successfully captures both the spirit of John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth’s womb but also Mary’s joyful exuberance. The central aria provides the bass soloist and continuo cellist a flashy and virtuosic depiction of God casting down the mighty from their seat, exalting the humble, leaving the rich empty, and filling the hungry with gifts of grace. The third aria is perhaps the most inward looking moment in the entire cantata. Scored as a duet for alto and tenor, listen for the Magnificat chant played in long tones by the trumpet.

There are two recitatives for the tenor soloist, both of which offer rich examples of Bach’s extraordinary text setting. Note the chromatic flourish on the word ‘scatter’ in the first recitative, for example.

It is the cantata’s opening movement that best captures the urgency and ardor of Mary’s Song. The ages old Magnificat psalm tone is heard in long notes in the Soprano part, taken up by the altos for the second verse. All around, Bach scores music of brilliant vivacity, depicting both the exuberance of Mary’s joy, but also the promise and urgency of Christ’s advent.

Rev. Gaskell

Let us prepare ourselves, upon this Christ the King Sunday, and take on for ourselves, a spirit of wonder, of vulnerability

Erazim Kohak, of Boston University said of wonder:  ‘The ageless boulders of the long abandoned dam, the maple and the great birch by twilight, the chipmunk in the busyness of his days and of his dying, even I, making my dwelling place among them, are not only right in our season.  We also have our value in eternity, as witnesses to the audacious miracle of being rather than nothing.  Ultimately, that is the moral sense of nature, infinitely to be cherished:  that there is something.  That is the eternal wonder articulated in the rightness and rhythm of time which humans honor in their commandments, the wonder of being…There are humans…who become blind to goodness, to truth and beauty, who drink wine without pausing to cherish it, who pluck flowers without pausing to give thanks, who accept joy and grief as all in a day’s work, to be enjoyed or managed, without ever seeing the presence of eternity in them.  But that is not the point.  What is crucial is that humans, whether they do so or not, are capable of encountering a moment not simply as a transition between a before and an after but as the miracle of eternity ingressing intot time.  That, rather than the ability to fashion tools, stands out as the distinctive human calling.’

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, of blessed memory, said of vulnerability:  ‘Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute:  we must simply hold out and see it through.  That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation; for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us.  It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap:  He does not fill it, but on the contrary, He keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.’

Gaston Bachelard, that Parisian philosopher poet, wrote, in full self-awareness:  ‘Words—I often imagine this—are little houses, each with its cellar and garret.  Common sense lives on the ground floor, always ready to engage in ‘foreign commerce’, on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers.  To go upstairs in the word house, is to withdraw, step by step; while to go down to the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology, looking for treasures that cannot be found in words.  To mount and descend in the words themselves—this is the poet’s life…Yet listen well.  Not to my words, but to the tumult that rages in your body when you listen to yourself…And why should the actions of the imagination not be as real as those of the perception?’

Bach is filling us with grace and beauty! In particular, the final recit (No. 6) strays a bit from Luke, to amplify a little more theology, and seems to borrow heavily from John: “Thus it ever is, that God’s Word is full of grace and truth.”   Because the Gospel of John is centrally about the divine presence, this note fits our music today very well.  John is about presence, as is this magnificent cantata.  John is about Spirit, as is this magnificent cantata.  John is about mystery, as is this magnificent cantata.  John is about grace, as is this magnificent cantata.  Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us

in the house of his servant David,

as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

and has remembered his holy covenant,

the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness

before him all our days.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

-The Reverend Victoria Hart Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist students & Dr. Scott Jarrett, Director of Music

Reverend Gaskell’s portion of this week’s sermon is written by the Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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